Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

After 30 years of land and waterway preservation, Gay Mills prepares to retire

Gay Mills standing on the high bridge in downtown Rochester
Max Schulte
As she prepares for retirement, Gay Mills poses for a photo before the site of a proposed park at High Falls that she's been instrumental in developing.

As a November wind buffeted High Falls, a red-tailed hawk circled overhead, focused on the gorge a hundred feet below.

On the Pont de Rennes Bridge, Gay Mills gazed in the same direction.

"Down by the river, it feels really different than it does here," she said. "You wouldn't know where you are. There's also just, very dramatic scenery - both from the falls but also other sections."

Seeing the possibilities in a plot of land has been big part of Mills' work over the last 30 years with Genesee Land Trust, 25 as its executive director.

Map of High Falls park proposal
Max Schulte
Genesee Land Trust Executive Director Gay Mills shows a map outlining a proposed state park at the base of High Falls. Under Mills' leadership, GLT envisioned a new life for the 40 acres of rocky riverfront and partially wooded terrain.

What she sees in the gorge, still marked by reminders of its industrial past, is the future High Falls State Park - a project still years away from materializing - but one that has the potential to make High Falls a tourist destination.

Over the last several decades, that same vision guided Mills and her organization with the help of other community partners, to reclaim over 6,000 acres of natural lands and waterways in Monroe, Wayne, and small sections of bordering counties.

trail in spring
photo provided
Genesee Land Trust
The El Camino Trail in spring. The pedestrian path was adapted from an old railroad line stretching from Mills Street in High Falls to the Seneca Park pedestrian bridge. Retiring Genesee Land Trust Executive Director, Gay Mills, called the project one of her proudest. "It's a wonderful trail in a great community that has a lot of struggles," she said.

One of those projects is the El Camino Trail, just north of High Falls. The multi-use, two and a quarter mile recreational trail follows the path of an old, abandoned railroad track. Today, it's enjoyed by hikers and cyclists.

"Gay was a visionary," said Theresa Bowick, founder of the neighborhood cycling program Conkey Cruisers, which began on the trail. "She saw beyond what existed in that space and was really able to tap into and advocate for making that space what it became."

Mills humbly pointed to the late County Executive Tom Frey for coming up with the idea to repurpose the rail line for the betterment of the community, but Bowick said the trail and the adjoining Conkey Corner Park wouldn't exist without Mill's perseverance.

"It was Gay who went to all of the meetings and all of the community boards and who, to this day, right now, is advocating for funding for that old [railroad] trestle to extend and go across the Genesee River," Bowick added.

Humility is a term that comes up a lot when you ask people about Gay Mills.

"Her legacy is that she is largely selfless," said Rachel Edwards, a Land Trust co-founder and past president. "She didn't do [conservation work] for any personal or egotistical self-aggrandizement."

Gay Mills
Max Schulte
Genesee Land Trust executive director Gay Mills will retire in 2023 after more than 30 years with the nonprofit, 25 as its leader.

Before forming Genesee Land Trust in 1990, Edwards and Mills were young mothers dismayed by the rapid residential development that was taking place in Honeoeye Falls and Mendon.

Considering ways to preserve the community character they loved, Edwards, Mills and several other community members circulated petitions to pursue a moratorium on new development. They heard that others in Rochester were interested in forming a land trust and that planted the seed for the creation of their own nonprofit.

Community activism, like politics, can be adversarial but Edwards said Mills' quiet, respectful demeanor, listening skills, and her ability to bring people together for a common goal set her apart.

"The metaphor would be that she's created the biodiversity of the human landscape through the Land Trust that she's trying achieve through the natural world," she said.

Corbett's Glen tunnel
photo provided
Genesee Land Trust
A tunnel runs beneath a rail line at Corbett's Glen Nature Park, which borders a residential Brighton neighborhood. The 52-acre park includes waterfalls, a marsh, open fields and a wooded area. Genesee Land Trust, with the help of a public fundraising campaign, acquired the park for public use in June 1999.

Under Mills' leadership, the Land Trust created 17 public preserves spanning the region from the suburbs to urban and rural areas.

They include the wooded trails of Corbett's Glen Nature Park in Brighton and the Cornwall Nature Preserve in Pultneyville with its wildflower meadow, peach and apple orchards, and striking views of Lake Ontario. The grassland and shore birds whose populations were declining are reportedly migrating through the area again.

Cass Trail at Cornall Preserve.jpg
photo provided
Genesee Land Trust
The Cass Meadow Trail at Cornwall Nature Preserve in Pultneyville, Wayne County. The 77-acre preserve owned by Genesee Land Trust includes apple and peach orchards, wildlife, and spectacular views of Lake Ontario.

Over the years, the Land Trust also ensured the conservation of 18 family farms - not public space, per se, but critical to human life.

"If you think about the future of climate change and food insecurity, protecting farmland is a significant necessity," Mills said. "As we look long into the future, it’s important to make sure we still have farming in our community, whether it’s small farms nearby or large farms in the countryside.”

When asked which projects were most special to her over her three-decade career in conservation, tears streamed down Mills' face.

"They're like children," she said. "It's hard to choose which one is the most dear."

Part of Mills' legacy includes her mentorship of young people through the Land Trust's Teens for the Earth, a small group of teenagers who are expanding their experiences in natural spaces.

"I see (in them) everything I used to be as a teenager," Mills said. "Not wanting to be involved, but then they get started on some project and they open up. They feel they're doing something good for others."

Syd Ferree, 17, a student at School Without Walls Commencement Academy, is a youth staff member of the Teens for the Earth program whose worked focused last summer on spreading mulch, picking up trash, and planting garden beds along the El Camino Trail. Ferree said they are now preparing for a symposium in Dec. which involves a research project and presentation.

"I'm doing mine on greenwashing," they said, "which is the act of a company presenting false claims about sustainability in order to gain goodwill and customers."

While shadowing Mills, Ferree attended meetings about High Falls State Park, offering feedback and suggestions for the proposed development. Ferree said the entire experience has sparked a desire to work in urban ecology.

"It's a part of conservation that I feel is overlooked," they said, "as most people think [it has to do] with national farms and parks in rural areas."

With her retirement months away, Mills seems confident to leave her organization in the hands of the next generation.

"It's on the cusp of doing really great things and I think that would take a brand new and expansive leader," Mills said.

While the Land Trust's mission may not have shifted much since 1990, Mills said attitudes about conservation have evolved.

"In the early days, it feel like there was little interest on (the part of) municipalities and governments to really invest in open space and natural environments," she said. "But that feels like that has changed significantly."

The Land Trust has formed an ad hoc transition committee that includes Mills, GLT staff and board members, to search for a new executive director. The nonprofit has also retained an executive recruiter to help with the search. They say there are no internal candidates at this time.

Beth Adams joined WXXI as host of Morning Edition in 2012 after a more than two-decade radio career. She was the longtime host of the WHAM Morning News in Rochester. Her career also took her from radio stations in Elmira, New York, to Miami, Florida.